Getting (a Lot) More From Festivals

Everything about the idea of a festival is exciting—anticipation, activity and action all outside of the normal course of business. And festivals typically celebrate an attribute of a community or region so there is often a sense of pride among subsets of residents that naturally occurs during this time. The preparation, the push toward deadlines, the pace of activity picks up as the festival draws near. More than likely, hotels and restaurants are booked up. Parking is going to be a problem so shuttle services are often scheduled. Festival time comes and the excitement is at its peak. Visitation typically increases dramatically—so does revenue for the municipality, local business and often the area craftsmen. And then poof, it’s over. Time to close up, clean up and cross your fingers that there was enough return on the investment of all this effort.

Some communities that experience more seasonal peak-occupancy will use festivals to grow shoulder and off-season tourism. In these cases, the festival atmosphere—and all there is to do associated with the event—ideally paints a pretty picture for atypical visitors. The hope is that these visitors will enjoy being there so much during these atypical seasons that they’ll return—and recommend trips with similar timing to others with similar interests. Think of well-known ski communities that have turned their beautiful mountain (off-season) summers into big business…Sundance Film, Vail Food and Wine, etc.

Success is almost always measured by festival attendance—so as many tourism stakeholders as possible can operate at full capacity, all at once, during a very short period. However, unlike major ski destinations, most communities are not equipped with abundant and underutilized accommodations, restaurants and labor to properly leverage a huge influx of visitors into significant economic contributors over a very short period. So, no matter how “successful” your festival may be, its ability to create significant ROI is almost always dramatically overestimated.

A ton of effort is invested into a festival with the goal to compress as much ROI as possible into a few days, a long weekend or at most 8 or 9 days (two weekends with a Monday – Friday in between). What if you could leverage the same theme, spread the efforts of hosting a large festival over time, and significantly increase ROI? Consider converting your festival to a series of events planned over the course of a season or year.

The advantages to hosting a series instead of a festival are numerous. 

  1. More frequent celebrations give significantly more people opportunities to attend. Someone who would love to come but isn’t available one particular date is likely to be available for one of the dates in the series. The same goes for participants, vendors and volunteers.
  2. Fans of the series could come back multiple times—exposing them to chances to visit more of your attractors, dine out at multiple places and really get to know the community. 
  3. A series allows for more frequent testing and vetting of new ideas, themes and venues. If something new doesn’t work in the second installment of the series, tweak it in the third, etc.

By reemerging your festival as a series, you can greatly enhance your destination’s hospitality providers’ ability to sell more room nights overall. They will have multiple opportunities to accommodate series patrons and, depending on your destination’s opportunity nights, low occupancy nights can be taken advantage of when planning the series much more often than when hosting a festival.

A series functions much like a theatre or performance season. The predictable schedule of a season opens more opportunities to form partnerships between restaurants and the series venues—much like the restaurants in the Broadway Theater District in New York offer a pre-performance menu.

At this writing, there is one more factor to be considered, sustainability. Not only is there an interest in greener destinations, but people are also seeking lower-density opportunities post-pandemic—and low-density is also associated with sustainability. The New York Times writes:  “Sustainability has a positive impact not only on the environment, but the culture and the economy of the destination you’re visiting,” said Kelley Louise, the executive director of the Impact Travel Alliance, an industry nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable travel.

The series concept can decrease the likelihood of overcrowding, spread the need for resources such as volunteers and municipal support, and increase occupancy on opportunity nights. As Stamp Strategy Director David Allred often asks stakeholders during FAM tours, “There are 365 nights your accommodations providers need to sell every year. Why focus so much energy on 3 to 4 days of festival attendance—putting visitors in your market one time a year?” It’s a question worth asking yourself, your team and most importantly, the stakeholders in your community that have to ability to turn their festivals into series.

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